moving mountains

Ta-Nehisi Coates has some advice for NYC principals: ‘It’s not all up to you’

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Ta-Nehisi Coates offered a "master class" for New York City school leaders on Monday.

To Ta-Nehisi Coates, the experience of black people in America is inseparable from institutions and history — from the plunder and enslavement of black bodies, to racist housing policy and school segregation.

But on Monday morning, Coates offered a “master class” for a group of New York City school leaders who were eager to know what they could do to help dismantle those systems of oppression, one classroom at a time.

But Coates had some difficult advice for the principals: Know your limits.

“This is horrible to say, but it’s not all up to you. It just ain’t. … There’s only a certain amount that you can affect.”

Addressing a crowd of roughly 30 school leaders from traditional public, charter, and private schools at a forum organized by The Academy for Teachers, Coates spoke frankly about the role of public schools and his experience as a student in Baltimore.

“I guess I feel like the school system sort of failed me, he said. “School was not a physically safe place … violence was a thing you were always coping with.”

That public school experience ultimately affected his decision to send his son, Samori, to private school, Coates said.

A MacArthur “genius” fellow, Atlantic correspondent, and author of “Between the World and Me” — a book framed as a letter to Samori on what it means to be black in America — Coates acknowledged the fundamental unfairness of opting out of public schools.

“I pay outrageous tuition basically to keep this kid safe. And it’s just completely, completely, completely unfair,” he said. “I feel almost like I robbed the system.”

Though Coates didn’t lay out a roadmap for specific education reforms, he frequently returned to the idea of failure, and the way schools can keep students from taking intellectual risks. He never considered himself a successful learner, he said, because he struggled to engage with school.

“People and educators often deeply underestimate that it actually hurts to fail,” he explained. “The world is so much more open than any report card or any test score.”

It wasn’t until he attended Howard University, where the library never seemed to close, that he found a way to stoke his own intellectual curiosity.

But Coates noted the headwinds teachers face — the consequences of homelessness, poverty and the criminal justice system — and argued that teachers, like black people, are often easy scapegoats for larger institutional failures.

So how to resist that demonization? Coates urged educators to “push back” against the idea that it’s solely their responsibility to solve longstanding social problems, and encouraged them to team up with other activists to fight for change.

“Drawing on the history of African-Americans in this country, you really have to be willing to struggle on behalf of things that are not resolvable in your lifetime,” he said. “The fact that you’re fighting for kids who have not yet been born doesn’t make the struggle irrelevant … The problems weren’t created in one generation.”

funding battle

Defiant, Cuomo invites ire resisting more New York State funding for schools

PHOTO: Philip Kamrass/Office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo during his 2018 State of the State address.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo once again laid the responsibility of equitable school funding on local districts Monday, earning the nickname “Ebenezer Scrooge” from an advocacy group and kicking off what could be a contentious fight over education spending.

In a speech to the New York City Bar Association, Cuomo released his legislative priorities for the first 100 days of his new term as governor. He devoted a small portion of his comments to education, immediately sparking anger from his critics.

Cuomo directly placed responsibility for funding schools on local districts, saying the money is “not fairly distributed by them.” He pointed to a law he pushed to pass last year that required school districts to compile a report on how state funding is distributed among schools.

“The truth is the poorest schools do not receive any more funding than the richer schools from their local districts,” Cuomo said. “And that, my friend, is a critical injustice because the poorer schools have a great need that needs to be funded.

Then, Cuomo called the foundation aid program — designed to send extra dollars to high-needs school districts — and the 1993 lawsuit filed by New York City parents that laid the groundwork for foundation aid as “ghosts of the past” and part of “a political game.”

“The question is the local distribution of aid,” Cuomo said. “That’s what we have to focus on if we’re actually going to move from political pandering to progressive policy. It’s a question of math and theory, not philosophy and political posturing.”

Advocates say the state still owes the education department about $4 billion in foundation aid funding. The state halted funding under the formula during the recession. In 2017, Cuomo proposed changing it to a level that advocates described as a “repeal.” But Cuomo’s proposal could not overcome these advocates’ opposition and failed to pass.

“Cuomo is the Ebenezer Scrooge of public schools, starving children of much needed resources and state funding,” said Jasmine Gripper, legislative director for the union-backed advocacy group Alliance for Quality Education, in a statement after Cuomo’s speech.

The problem, Gripper said, is that under Cuomo, the “state doesn’t provide enough funding to meet the growing needs that result from growing poverty and increased numbers of English language learners.”

A Chalkbeat analysis of New York City’s school funding data found there are funding disparities, which can amount to thousands of dollars per pupil, between schools, largely because of the Fair Student Funding Formula that sends more dollars to schools with hard-to-serve students, like those with disabilities or those from low-income families.

Some educators, including school principals, argue this formula does not go far enough to address school inequities — holes often filled by rich PTAs.

In the past, some scholars have questioned whether spending more money on schools necessarily results in sufficiently better outcomes for students. But a new review of the research suggests that additional money can play a role in student academic performance. But how that money is spent also likely matters.

The state Department of Education recently proposed a $2.1 billion increase in school funding, most of it tied to boosting foundation aid dollars. The state teachers union and Alliance for Quality Education lauded the Board of Regents’ proposal.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Teachers Federation, said it’s “time to take the politics out of state resources for education,” adding that low-income students have been “shortchanged for years” by the state formula.

As they have in the past, state education policymakers also endorsed a $4.9 billion, three-year phase-in of the money many argue is still owed under foundation aid.

“As we said when we released our proposal last week, all children should have access to a high-quality education regardless of their race, where they live or where they go to school,” said Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. “We look forward to working with the legislature and the executive to achieve this for all New York’s children.”

With more progressive Democrats in the Senate who campaigned on boosting education spending, Cuomo’s comments could signal a contentious budget fight ahead. Lawmakers must hash out a budget pan by April 1, and Cuomo’s budget proposal is expected in January.

Lawmakers don’t typically grant the full funding request from state policymakers. Last year, for example, legislators approved $1 billion in more funding for education, which was still more than half a billion dollars less than what the Board of Regents asked for.

Student Voice

Want to improve schools? Chicago students have messages for the city’s next mayor

Money for arts programs.

A Spanish teacher at the start of school — not midway through the semester.

More paper.

More teachers.

Free public transit for students — all year long.

Ask students to list the education priorities for Chicago’s next mayor, and many of them will start in one place: more funding for their schools.

But they have plenty of other ideas, too, on ways that City Hall could work to improve conditions on the ground at the district’s 600-plus schools, from free public transportation to and from school to solutions to teacher shortages.

In advance of a December public forum we hosted on the topic of the mayor’s race and the future of schools, Chalkbeat spent a day talking to the people affected most by the politics of education: Chicago students. To hear more of what they said, watch this video, filmed on location at the Mikva Challenge 2018 Project Soapbox competition and produced by Chalkbeat reporter Yana Kunichoff and Scrappers Film Group.